Almost everything about Ebony Nwanebu disguises who the Texas women’s volleyball player actually is.
On the court, the Longhorns junior is as powerful an outside hitter as there is in her sport. Her coach calls her “world class” and says “her future is at a high end.” Her aggressive play and intimidating style as a 6-4 force on the front line has transformed a team that didn’t win the Big 12 for the first time in six years into one that’s playing its best volleyball of the season, leading into Friday’s regional semifinal match against BYU.
Off it, she’s, well, unique.
And quirky, sensitive, sharp, compassionate, inquisitive, child-like and candid.
Most young women are who adore all things Disney, grew up with cows for pets in north Texas, routinely chronicles deeply personal information about herself in a blog and transferred from USC to Texas after two seasons but with a conditional request.
“She’s quirky for sure,” said teammate Natalie Gilbert, a sophomore libero from Coppell and one of Nwanebu’s closest friends. “She’s very sweet and innocent. She’s definitely a princess.”
Which is the exact nickname Nwanebu’s teammates have stuck on her. Her favorite princess? “Aurora,” Nwanebu said. “She’s the tallest princess — 5-9.”
Yeah, Nwanebu’s different. Interestingly and entertainingly different.
Oh, and that request before she agreed to switch from the Trojans to the Longhorns after considering Baylor, TCU, Nebraska and Wisconsin and calling 50 schools?
Nwanebu (pronounced WAHN-uh-boo) called former Longhorn Chiaka Ogbogu and asked her the potentially deal-breaking question.
“I checked with her to make sure it was OK to wear ribbons when we play,” Nwanebu said. “I love wearing bows.”
She was given the okay on her wardrobe by head coach Jerritt Elliott, who joked that “whatever she wants to wear, she can wear.”
Mostly, she’s worn out the competition with ferocious kills from the deep corner and even some well-placed tips in front of retreating defenders, a nuance to her power game.
It hasn’t always been a smooth path for the former national freshman of the year. That honor came before she was diagnosed with a fractured vertebrae during her time with the senior national team in Switzerland, an injury that took three months of rehabilitation before she returned to play and struggled to regain the form she flashed in that first USC season.
That’s when her performance anxiety surfaced. She’d nervously throw up before games and start sweating profusely. Even today, Gilbert said she and her teammates have worked to “reinforce that she’s a star player.”
“I was going through a lot at USC,” Nwanebu said. “I was not performing, and I started pulling away from my friends. I just couldn’t function anymore. It was like I was losing myself. I’d walk to class and wonder, ‘Why am I here?’”
Nwanebu began seeing a sports psychologist and continues that development now with Mike Voight, the East Coast-based sports therapist who has helped Elliott and his staff create a winning culture for their players. Those Skype sessions, caring teammates like Gilbert and recovery from her back injury have helped to foster Nwanebu’s happiness after she sat out a year as a medical redshirt.
“It’s about what it takes to be great, how to develop as an athlete, creating a team culture,” Elliott said. “Ebony’s got a big heart. She loves to skip around and bounce around, and she can be very feminine-like. It’s been a year of growth personally and physically for her. She’s grown up a ton.”
She had wanted to go out of state to assert her independence and hasten her personal growth to the point that any time she received recruiting mail from any in-state school, she quickly discarded it.
At Texas, she’s taken to writing words on the white tape on her fingers, reminders like a green light for “go ahead” and a yellow light for “be cautious.” There’s no room for red lights. “That’s not an option,” she said.
She’s also a crier. A major-league crier, not that she’s had much to cry about lately.
”I cry very easily,” she said.
She cries at Disney movies, none moreso than her favorites, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Mermaid.” She cries when she sees dogs because “they’re so cute.” She was crying when she and her roommate, Hannah Feste, picked out a new dog, a 6-week-old mix, part Australian shepherd and part golden retriever.
Nwanebu never had a dog growing up. But she did have two cows that she named Elsie and Rocky on the property in Fairview near Allen where her mother, Joyce Newell, had some land and a barn. Not that Nwanebu is all country girl.
She’s pretty citified, with her turquoise fingernails and her yellow ribbon in her hair. Just don’t let the looks fool you.
“She’s known to be a beast on the court,” Gilbert said. “She hits the ball so hard, she brings a fire to the court. She’s amazing.”
And a princess.